Tag Archives: MBA Essays

Brevity is the Soul of Wit, War, and MBA Admissions Essays

Here’s a bit of fun with a serious twist. You may have seen this document below as it does the rounds on the Internet.

I believe it is genuine, and in it the then British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was telling his 1940 War Cabinet the equivalent of “hello, did you know there’s a war on? Let’s not confuse ourselves and waste our time on excessive verbiage and writing flourishes. If you’ve got something to say, just say it.”

brevity

MBA admissions is not a war zone. But admissions committees are busy, particularly around their application deadlines. So do them and therefore yourself a favor by keeping your writing tight and to-the-point.

This does not mean you should adopt a clipped tone and write like morse code. You get to brevity without losing content or style by carefully selecting your examples,  using plain words, avoiding all verbal windups and empty phrases, and deleting repetition.

For a full discussion of practical writing strategies to deliver content in the briefest possible way, with examples, please see Section 4: Writing Tools and Methods, in my book MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing (McGraw Hill).

Do I Have to Stick to the Word Limit in MBA Admissions Essays?

“How strictly do I have to stick to the essay word limit? How much can I go over? Does it matter if I’m under?” is a question I get a lot from clients and people who pop up on email.

To answer this, it’s essential, as always, to think about any process or task or limit in admissions from AdCom’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. Why do they ask for it? What are they trying to achieve? How does it help them?

So, what is AdCom trying to do with word limits? First, if there were no limits applicants would ask incessantly: “Please Miss, how long must it be?” Second, some applicants would write the great American novel, which would waste their time and the Committee’s. Third, limits provide a way of getting essays from different applicants to be more directly comparable, being the same length.

But there is play in the system. The purpose of the essays is to get to know the applicant via their writing, and everyone knows that writing is a creative process and certainly nobody expects you to hit the word count on the nail. This is not engineering or accounting. (Believe it or not, some clients fuss the word count until they have exactly the number asked for, taking touching comfort in a detail that will provide them absolutely no refuge.) Anyway, application forms often talk about a word “guide” rather than word “limit.” So you can clearly go a bit over, but by how much?

My advice to clients is not to go more than +5% in any essay. This kind of margin is a natural “rounding error” in finishing up what you have to say and will not hurt you if your reader is a reasonable person, which we assume she is. More than this will start to look like you are taking advantage and/or asking for an indulgence that your competitors are not getting.

However if you write a number of essays that are noticeably short it is fine to have one or two that are commensurately longer, so that the whole comes out more or less right.

Can you go under the limit? Similarly, I advise clients not to go less than -5% on any essay. In one sense, like all professional communicators, I believe strongly in “say what you have to say; say it once, strongly and clearly and then stop talking.” This is the royal road to more powerful communications. Certainly there’s no merit in padding, wafffling, and repeating yourself.

But admissions essays are relatively short pieces of writing, and you — if you merit a place at a top b-school — are a multifaceted, talented individual with an valuable track record, and if you can’t find things to say to take up the word count this in itself flags that you have not been able to (or haven’t bothered to) properly investigate your own motivations or fully argue your merits.

Good vs. Bad Risks In MBA Admissions Essays

Business Week last week put out an illuminating story about how MBA Adcoms set about thinking up MBA admissions essay questions.

The context is business schools are asking fewer essay questions in total, often swapping text questions for multimedia input. Part of the reason b-school adcoms are asking for fewer questions is they don’t get what they want from the answers.

What they very often get is a generic “promo-style” answer from the applicant, telling the admissions committee what they think the committee wants to hear.

If an essay prompt results in thousands of formulaic responses it will be pulled, as year-on-year Adcoms sit down to refine their questions based on the quality of answers they got the previous year.

There’s a lot MBA applicants can learn from knowing what Adcom’s task themselves to achieve (or more specifically, what they try to avoid) in composing a good question.

Liz Riley Hargrove, Associate Dean for admissions at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, tells Business Week how admissions officers pass boardroom hours lobbing edits back and forth to craft the perfect question.

They answer each other’s questions. If Adcom members themselves answer the question generically, it’s back to the drawing board.

What they don’t want is your elegantly varnished cookie-cutter answer that takes no risks. What they do want is an authentic expression of self, something that reveals a piece of who you really are and what shaped you.

Taking risks doesn’t mean you can make mistakes in grammar or tone or style, or you can discuss inappropriate topics or waste words capturing little admissions value. That’s taking a bad risk.

It does mean you can be yourself. Really, truly. Being who you really are, and saying what your really want is a good risk.

How can you “be yourself?” By saying things about you that are honest and self-revealing, that are specific in time and place and unique only to you. This is the way to achieve an authentic voice  and intimate tone into your communications.

If what you say could just as easily be in the next applicant’s essay, you’ve failed an important test in MBA admissions essay writing.